NORMAN — The Cheez-It Bowl roster Oklahoma published on Monday was noticeably smaller than the Sooners’ regular-season roster.
The transfer portal and the NFL Draft can do that to a team.
OU practiced Monday inside the Everest Training Center and the numbers were diminished because 15 players have entered the transfer portal and four starters have opted out to train for the NFL.
“Best of luck to them, as far as that’s concerned,” said junior defensive end Reggie Grimes. “They’ve served their time here, and they’ve paid their dues. All power to them. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Head coach Brent Venables famously said the vast majority for the portal departures weren’t impacting the team on the field. Still, the backups and reserves aren’t just names on a roster. They’re real people who form real relationships with their teammates, coaches and others.
Such an exodus can be difficult personally, but those who remain cope the best they can, focus on what’s next and move on.
“Yeah, you know, it’s always tough,” said senior tight end Brayden Willis. “We would love to keep everybody, but unfortunately that’s just not how it works sometimes. And you know, sometimes guys have other — they have plans and everybody has their own reasoning, and I respect everybody’s reasoning. I’m an advocate for the portal. It’s just, sometimes it’s how it goes — a better opportunity somewhere else.”
“I wouldn’t say difficult,” said junior receiver Marvin Mims, who watched three fellow wideouts depart during the second week of December. “At the end of the day, I still love them. Those are my brothers. For the most part, most of the guys have been here for multiple years. Just to see them do what’s best for them, I’m going to be there to support them at the end of the day. I wouldn’t call it difficult for me to watch. It is what it is.”
A handful of portal exits were freshmen. Defensive linemen Alton Tarber and Cedric Roberts and quarterback Nick Evers were members of the 2022 recruiting class — a tight-knit group that’s impacting the future of the program. To come in together, and to watch three of your classmates leave after less than one year, could be an emotional experience.
“You know, it was just, like just, ‘I love you. I’ll see you later,’ ” said freshman defensive lineman Gracen Halton. “You know, ‘Go do your work somewhere else.’ But that’s just all it is. That’s just life. But I love them all, all the ones that left.”
Halton may be just a freshman, but he’s already got a handle on the current state of college football.
“Hey, I feel like that’s what’s gonna happen,” Halton said. “You know, new coach coming in, there’s still guys from last year’s class. So that’s just what happens with game of football — college football.”
A year ago, quarterback Dillon Gabriel was among a group of newcomers who arrived through the transfer portal. Now he’s watching teammates use it to leave.
“People have decisions to make for their future and their careers, and we respect it,” Gabriel said. “We know how it is. So just the guys that are here being focused and finishing the right way for us as a team, but then also for this university.”
The numbers are drastically down in some groups, and that’s exacerbated by the departure of two starting offensive tackles (Anton Harrison and Wanya Morris), a starting running back (Eric Gray) and a starting defensive tackle (Jalen Redmond) who left for the NFL.
“Yeah, it’s different,” Mims said. “You definitely have less bodies out here. New faces stepping into new roles, more people. There are more young guys getting reps that haven’t played much or hadn’t had as many reps throughout the year.”
Among those getting an increased load in practice are the freshman running backs, Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk. Gray is off to the NFL, and bowl hero Marcus Major isn’t practicing (he wore a walking boot Monday), so it’s the rookies’ time to shine.
“It’s a lot of learning on my own,” Sawchuck said. “Eric was a great teacher, he was a great leader, led by example and it was great to watch him. Now that he’s gone onto the next level, I’m very happy for him but I’m excited to take that role and kind of learn with the other running backs and figure it all out together.”
“It’s been very exciting,” said Barnes. “I come to practice every day looking forward to learn something new. Obviously, it’s a new step. I have a bigger role for this game. I feel like DeMarco Murray, Eric Gray, Marcus Major and my teammates – they helped me build up my confidence to step up for this role. All season, I’ve been building my confidence to getting this role I’ve been looking forward to all season. I feel like I’m ready, and the running back group is ready and doing great.”
Other freshman will get more work, too, such as Halton, whom Ethan Downs referred to Monday as “a beast.” Freshmen tight ends Jason Llewellyn and Kaden Helms, and freshmen offensive linemen Jake Taylor and Jacob Sexton could see their roles increase. Same for defensive backs Gentry Williams and Jayden Rowe, and wideouts Jayden Gibson and Nic Anderson.
“Yeah it’s big for them,” Willis said. “It’s an opportunity. It’s a big opportunity and it could very well set your future or the rest of your career up.”
Willis is a captain, so he’s formed a strong bond with many of those who left. Leadership is one of Willis’ best traits, so he’ll continue to lead those who stayed.
“But we wish all those guys the best of luck,” Willis said, “and we know that the bond that we have established through the years of them being here and the workouts and the blood, sweat and tears that we’ve all been through, that we have a bond that goes way past being on this football team. So, love those guys and praying for them and hope to see them do well.”